"We didn't have to look into your souls, we had to see if you had souls at all."
NEVER LET ME GO is a science-fiction film, but it isn't. We are told that decades ago a breakthrough in technology has led to life expectancy topping over a hundred years old. This I suppose is where science comes in, although it's absent throughout.
The story is told through the eyes and voice of Kathy H. Through her words, she proceeds to paint a serene and moving portrait that begins at Hailsham--a boarding school in the English countryside. We meet Kathy as an adolescent. Apart from the cliques, she is reclusive from the others--save for a friendship with Ruth and a fascination with Tommy. Life at Hailsham seems idyllic: the students are properly educated, meals are provided. A few undertakings attack our presumptions: locator bracelets are adorned. Queries about what presides outside the campus walls fall on deaf ears.
While playing baseball during recess one day, Tommy fails to retrieve the ball that bounces over the fence. A unsettling conversation takes place between Miss Lucy--one of the teachers--and Ruth, who explains why Tommy didn't venture further.
"There was once a boy who ran off beyond the boundary. They found him, in the woods, with his hands and feet cut off."
"Who told you these stories?"
"Everybody knows them."
"And how do you know they're true?"
"Who would make up stories as horrible as that?"
This exchange is important, and that much more heartbreaking. We learn that there is no creature lurking in the trees; no malevolent force waiting to strike. But, nevertheless, Hailsham is a wicked place. The children are told of their unusual fate; their path is inevitable. The opening scene of the film reveals Kathy as an adult. Her gaze is on Tommy, sprawled on an operating table. Their eyes meet, a faint smile is produced; they both seem to know what's to happen next. Kathy's narration hints at the fates they are resigned to. While the original novel of Kazuo Ishiguro allows the plot to establish itself methodically, unfortunately, Mark Romanek's adaptation spills its secrets far too early.
That's not to say that the motion picture doesn't capture the beauty of Ishiguro's art; it is shot wonderfully. More hesitation would be appreciated however; the finality of the tale did not need to be learned so soon.
From Hailsham, the children--now adults--are moved to the Cottages--the next stage of their development. By now, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are in the midst of a relationship, leaving Kathy (Carey Mulligan) once again, playing the part of the outcast. All three leads are outstanding.
Mulligan, who starred in the Academy Award nominated AN EDUCATION, portrays a character who is thrust into circumstances that challenges her convictions and resolve; a constrained intelligence is evident throughout.
Knightley has the most unrewarding task. Ruth, although mellowed in the third act, is a bitter, spiteful girl. Her relationship with Tommy stems from spite of Kathy's personality, not from honest feelings. She is almost child-like, acting out in brash ways.
Garfield, who had a starring role in David Fincher's THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the most impressive. Still relatively obscure, he will soon become a household name, having been cast as the new interpretation of Spider-Man. Here, Garfield's expressions alone tell us all we need to know of the unenviable life these three live. His scenes are also the most wrenching; our feelings coincide with his. We share in his unmistakable optimism, yet also wallow alongside, when there is seemingly nothing left to fight for.
NEVER LET ME GO, is not about abandonment, but holding on to what we cherish most in life. Near the end of the film, Kathy and Tommy meet once more with Madame--a woman that was brought into Hailsham to collect pieces of art and sculpture. The two are there to plead their case, to prove that they're in love--an act that could have prolonged consequences. The art they were told, was something to manifest the condition of their soul. Madame looks upon them with a dejected gaze. "You poor creatures," she laments. "The art you donated was not to decide the quality of your soul, but rather determine if you had one at all." This is a film about empathy; how it comes from the most unlikeliest of places and people. Science can extend life and build new organs, but can it construct a spirit? Our existence is fleeting; nevermore has that felt so true.